Photos by Steve DeBartolomeo
By Philip Pearce
KAREN ZACARÍAS’ The Book Club Play, latest offering in Jewel Theatre Company’s 2016-17 season in Santa Cruz, starts from an exciting comic premise.
A chatty and close-knit group of five suburbanite Americans meet every other week to talk about a book they’ve all agreed to have read since the last session. The interplay between the assigned book’s impact and the club’s group dynamics jolts them, one by one, out of cozy middle class attitudes into new freedom and growth.
It’s got the outline and structure of a provocative piece of American social satire. And Jewel gives it the usual slick professional staging, plus some adroit comic direction by Kirsten Brandt. There are top-grade performances from a cast of six, since the close-knit opening quintet acquires an unwelcome invader just before the end of Act I.
As club founder and hostess Ana, Maryssa Wanlass launches the action by announcing that Book Club has attracted the vicarious notice of a Danish film maker. Even as she speaks they’re all five being filmed by a non-stop documentary camera located somewhere out there in the audience. “Pretend it’s not there,” she gushes. And it’s not hard to guess how badly that’s going to work. The continuing presence of a reality TV camera produces some phony posturing and some authentically funny moments when club members suddenly find they don’t welcome having what they’ve just said or just done recorded for posterity. Wanlass drops hints that all of Ana’s arm-patting social warmth and literary pep talk mask a chronic need to exert control that’s going to explode unpleasantly in Act 2.
Her husband Rob, taken with engaging athletic playfulness by Brent Schindele, is considerably more relaxed about Book Club. Never mind the current commitment to Moby Dick, Rob hasn’t cracked a piece of fiction past chapter 1 since he made it through Tarzan of the Apes in high school. But he likes the chardonnay and snacks and welcomes the chance to horse around with fellow book-clubber and former college roommate Will, played with prissy precision and pathos by Geoff Fiorito.
The club’s two other members are a wistful and earnest paralegal named Jen (the appealing Sierra Jolene) and a bright spark of a colleague of Ana’s on the local newspaper named Lily, who suddenly begins to suspect (and probably rightly) that she was recently and enthusiastically elected to membership as the club’s Token Black. Tristan Cunningham is a delight in the role, with a flexibility of facial expression that works wonders, notably in moments when she is struggling to decide whether to pull out all the stops or pretend she’s ignoring that Danish movie camera.
In what in many ways is the script’s most interesting character, Stephen Muterspaugh crashes the party like a sleek interloping leopard in the person of Alex, a local comparative literature prof who has swallowed the lure of pop culture so totally that he now reads nothing but bestselling potboiler vampire pieces like Twilight and serves as guide to this unexpected choice of book club reading matter.
It’s a good set up and a good idea. I just wish Zacarías had peopled it with less stereotyped characters and fewer sitcom style situations. Or even keep the clichéd figures intact but gradually show what surprises lurk beneath their predictable postures and dialogue. She doesn’t. Through too much of the evening, these six people are moved more by a need to advance some amusing plot complication than to show any underlying human need or conflict.
By the time the assigned book and the club atmosphere begin to bring about changes in Ana and her crew, we’ve already made a rough guess what those changes will be. The closeted guy will come to terms with his sexuality; the dominated husband will reach out for freedom. We get the idea before it happens. And the character changes that result are not surprising let alone shocking enough to nudge anybody, on stage or in the audience, out of familiar middle class comfort zones. The changes are amusingly staged but predictable because Zacarías almost always lets passing humor trump character development.
At a point when the cast form a temporary scrum of shouting mutual resentment, Alex comments that “Book Club is like ‘Lord of the Flies’ with wine and dip,” It’s a neat enough literary one liner, but nothing that goes on throughout the play justifies such a searching claim.
The script is at its best in brief moments when it ignores plot points or funny dialogue and takes an honest look at issues such as the power and beauty of a really good book or the way the shared security blanket of club membership automatically resists any invasion by refugees like Alex. The script is at its worst in the final sequence, where the cast, two by two, cut away loose ends and pair off with the glib precision of characters singing their final duets in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
I left the Colligan feeling I had enjoyed a diverting enough evening, but regretting I had not been moved or challenged.
The Book Club Play continues through February 19th.